Bridge Theatre – until 15 April. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Wow. Just… Wow.
Nicholas Hytners’ production of Julius Caesar is a phenomenal.
Although modern dress, Brexit and Trump are not shoehorned in (although you can buy snazzy red baseball hats with Caesar emblazoned on them), and the seemingly eternal failing of the liberal elite to understand the masses and the rise of populist rulers is portrayed brilliantly by Ben Wishaw as Brutus and Michelle Fairley as Cassius.
With the stall seating removed to allow promenading ticketholders to get up close and personal with the cast and be part of the play, an ingenious staging design was needed to prevent this being merely a crowd milling around a few stage blocks. Bunny Christie’s inspired use of multiple platforms that sink into the floor gives the production a vibrant energy, especially with the cast and tech staff urgently ushering the audience backwards and forwards as actors enter and platforms reconfigure. As the audience arrive, a street band plays Seven Nation Army, Eye of the Tiger and finally whips up the crowd with We’re Not Gonna Take It, creating a true rock concert atmosphere around the stage. The proximity and interaction really suck the audience in, with the triumphant passing overhead of Caesar’s giant red banner soon dissolving into a real sense of unease after his murder. And all those interminable battle scenes in the second half of the play are taut and visceral under Hytner’s direction.
The cast are outstanding, with Wishaw magnetic as Brutus. Peering over his glasses as he pores over his books (one a biography of Stalin) he is the quintessential academic, tics and all, but after coming to the logical decision to kill Caesar, his arrogance in his reasoning becomes fierce, but gently comical, with Wishaw’s timing fantastic, and Fairley’s exasperated reactions priceless. Fairley keeps Cassius strong and righteous, with just enough petty jealously seeping through to make her the least sympathetic conspirator. In the latter part of the play, as Cassius begins to despair, Fairley truly shines, with Cassius’s death resonating far more deeply than previous productions I’ve seen. David Morrissey plays Mark Anthony as an opportunist chancer prior to Caesar’s death, and reveals his political skill after the murder with steely glances and a barnstorming “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” David Calder’s Caesar is the perfect politician, switching from bumbling old man to viciously smiling bully in a heartbeat.
This Julius Caesar is a sublime and unforgettable theatrical experience that shouldn’t be missed.